WASHINGTON — Democrats and congressional watchdog groups accused Republicans on Friday of illegally holding a campaign fundraiser in the Capitol complex during this week's swearing-in ceremonies for lawmakers.
One group said it would ask House ethics officials to investigate, but there were no immediate indications that they would take formal action.
A spokesman for the GOP congressman who sponsored the event denied that he had used it to raise campaign money, and said funds collected were for the costs of buses that ferried people to the reception. While at the reception, the two Republican lawmakers — Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Pete Sessions of Texas — missed their swearing-in ceremony on the House floor. They subsequently cast six votes each that House Republicans later had to nullify.
The salvos between the parties underscored the raw political feelings accompanying the start of the new Congress, in which Republicans took control of the House after four years in the minority and strengthened their hand in a Senate still run by Democrats.
Fitzpatrick held an event on Wednesday in the Capitol Visitor Center that his campaign called "Mike Fitzpatrick's Swearing In Celebration," according to copies of the announcement provided to The Associated Press by the Sunlight Foundation, which favors open government. Also attending the event was Sessions, who heads the House GOP's campaign arm.
The invitations said buses would provide round-trip transportation from Pennsylvania and cited a price of $30 per person. An accompanying form repeatedly describes the money as a "contribution," and attendees are asked to write their checks to Fitzpatrick's campaign committee.
"The $30 was for the cost of the bus, that's it," Fitzpatrick spokesman Darren Smith said in an email. "The reception in the CVC was free and open to anyone who showed up, including over 100 constituents who drove down on their own."
Fitzpatrick is technically a freshman, though he previously served one term in Congress from 2005 to 2007. He represents several Philadelphia suburbs, including prosperous Bucks County.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that holding a fundraiser in the Capitol Visitor Center violates the law banning campaign fundraising on federal property. Sloan said her group would ask the Office of Congressional Ethics to look into the reception.
"You're not allowed to solicit contributions. I don't care why," she said.
The law allows members to hold swearing-in receptions in House offices, paid for by campaign contributions, but not fundraisers.
The ethics office can conduct preliminary reviews of potential ethics problems and make non-binding recommendations to the House ethics committee about whether it should pursue a formal investigation. Jim Steinman, spokesman for the office, said its bipartisan board considers information it receives but could not predict what action they might take.
Aides to the bipartisan House ethics committee, which oversees lawmakers' behavior, did not return two telephone messages seeking comment.
Meredith McGehee, policy director for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which monitors campaign finance practices in Washington, said Fitzpatrick seemed to have broken campaign finance laws. She said the ethics office should examine the congressman's reception to spell out for lawmakers what types of events they can hold on congressional property.
"I don't look at this and say, 'My God, how venal,'" she said. "I say, 'Here's a guy who misses his own swearing-in and then goes and reads the Constitution.' How ironic. It does show how much the money system has become wrapped up in being a member of Congress."
Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for the House Democratic campaign committee, said serious questions are raised "when a Republican member of Congress and the chairman of the National Republican Congressional committee in charge of helping him get elected were at an event in the U.S. Capitol where camp funds were solicited to attend."
Fitzpatrick was among dozens of members of Congress who helped read the Constitution aloud on the House floor on Thursday, which GOP leaders engineered in a bow to the conservative tea party voters who helped them win a House majority in November.
The House voted 257-159 on Friday to nullify the votes cast by Sessions and Fitzpatrick. Retracting their votes didn't affect any outcomes. The two were sworn in Thursday.